A Survey of Iconic Masks in Visual Art

Guy Fawkes, los Luchadores, Sleep No More — there are oh-so-many masks in today’s popular culture, and so many questions. What’s with this desire to plop on another’s image and transform into something different, new and strange? Why hide your identity behind an oval-shaped obstruction and gawk at the world from behind its eye-holes? What kind of wrestling tights does one wear with a sparkly aquamarine Lucha libre mask? Just kidding. Let’s swerve the conversation into the field of visual art and investigate. From masks’ roots in ancient ritual performance to their use in contemporary art and related ruckus, peek under a few here and see if they’re still relevant.

Art has always been fascinated with the incredible masks of Sub-Saharan and West Africa. Cubists, Fauvists, Expressionists, and Abstractionists of various 20th century strains all owe inspiration to them. This is Surrealist Man Ray’s saucy muse Kiki de Montparnasse fondling one in Noire et Blanche(1926). Granted, artists may have been more fascinated with new different ways of interpreting the human face than understanding traditional spiritual rituals. Looking “different,” Picasso’s gaggle of les demoiselles!